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Why Is Biden Clinging to the Dream of Green Factories?

The candidate’s plan to “win the future” through American export domination has multiple problems.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Just about everyone seems to want a green recovery from the coronavirus and its economic upheaval. Rishi Sunak—Britain’s Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer—has pledged to decarbonize Britain’s housing stock through investments in energy efficiency and building upgrades. Right-wing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has started talking up the “green shoots” of economic recovery from the coronavirus, calling his country the world’s most attractive market for clean energy. The European Commission has pledged a Green Deal, in step with an array of new climate commitments from Germany’s center-right Christian Democrat–led government. 

It’s nice to see Joe Biden trying to keep pace. 

In a speech Tuesday, Biden championed several of the more ambitious recommendations from the Sanders-Biden unity task force on climate, having fused them into his now $2 trillion climate plan and “Build Back Better” agenda. Biden pledged to make the power sector net-zero by 2035 and get the rest of the economy there by 2050. He’ll set aside 40 percent of clean energy and infrastructure investments for communities living on the front lines of climate change and fossil fuel development. The plan further pledges to create an office of environmental justice within the Department of Justice. He described a Climate Conservation Corps, along the lines of a plan proposed by Washington Governor Jay Inslee in his primary run. 

The centerpiece of Biden’s revamped climate plan is green manufacturing and construction: building a network of 500,000 electric charging stations while retrofitting four million commercial buildings and two million homes; building 1.5 million new units of private and public housing; installing 500 million solar panels and 60,000 American-made wind turbines. The candidate hopes to put one million people to work manufacturing electric vehicles, with “American workers racing to dominate the global market” for clean energy, as he said Tuesday, as part of an effort to “reinvigorate domestic manufacturing.”

While it’s a big and ambitious plan relative to what Democrats have offered historically, we might have hoped for more. Egregiously, there’s still no timeline for getting the country off fossil fuels, leaving U.S. producers largely free to dig up and export as many of those as they please, wherever they please. The driving logic of the plan isn’t unique to Biden by any means: that we’ll simply build enough clean power to displace its fossil fueled counterparts. In his speech, Biden touted his experience overseeing the $90 billion invested in renewables as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. But that story should also be seen as a cautionary tale: Making clean energy cheaper and more widely available—as the ARRA undoubtedly did—is not in itself a plan for getting off coal, oil, and gas along the timeline the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends. 

For understandable reasons, images of a thriving economy in the United States tend to take its postwar period as their reference point: a booming manufacturing economy, staffed by men working their way toward the middle class, one day on the line at a time, driving home on highways to single-family homes. Accordingly, Biden plans to tackle the climate and economic crises now facing us by putting lots of people to work making lots of stuff and dominating global export markets. 

Yet after decades of the U.S. passing the buck on climate policy and clean energy development, the world’s most cutting-edge expertise on green manufacturing simply exists elsewhere, in factories halfway around the world that in many cases employ relatively few people. So if a central goal of the next decade is to deploy as much clean energy as quickly as possible, the most rapid and equitable route forward means that many components of America’s new green economy will not be Made in America. 

There’s still plenty of room for genuine U.S. leadership, and even for the U.S. to make more things domestically. Millions of new union jobs and a robust social safety net—the things people remember fondly about the decades after World War II—aren’t mutually exclusive with clean energy imports. But tackling the climate crisis on any sort of reasonable timeline will require a more collaborative style of U.S. leadership than the one suggested by hawkish and competitive Cold War imagery. Furthermore, it will mean accepting the fact that green jobs won’t all be in manufacturing, construction, installation, or other male-dominated fields. Lots of sorely needed work is already low-carbon, in addition to being chronically underfilled and underpaid—teaching, nursing, and other care jobs, for starters. 

There are other outdated ideas holding Biden’s plan back, too. Mandating that technologies developed in the U.S. be manufactured here may shut off paths to green development for low- and middle-income countries around the world. Many of these places are already feeling the effects of climate change that richer countries have fueled. And without careful planning, rushing to maintain America’s toxic car culture with electric vehicles could place an undue burden on those now mining the lithium and other technology minerals needed to make them. 

Finally, the U.S. can do a lot more a lot faster than even the comparatively fast pace Biden outlines. Given America’s outsize historical responsibility for the climate crisis, it ought to decarbonize much sooner than 2050, while encouraging other countries toward a global energy transition with ample financing for both mitigation and adaptation. Biden’s plan instead talks about the need for “American auto workers and manufacturers to win the 21st century.” Any climate plan that pits the U.S. against the world in the midst of a truly global crisis, though, can only kick off a race toward a warmer, uglier future.